Understanding the cosmos – The Achuar Community of Ecuador
The rainforest is the Achuars' nourishing mother, and within this living web of forest trails, streams and rivers, they know virtually every plant, tree and animal.
Here, they fish, hunt, and grow their crops as they have always done.
The Achuar believe in multiple spirits that give them the guide lines for a harmonic relationship with the rain forest and its creatures. Magic and healing powers are used by the shaman (uwishin), who gets his force by means of hallucinogenic plants like natem (Banisteriopsis sp.).
The Achuar maintain a remarkable and intimate relation with nature and its processes. Primarily based in astronomical calculations and biological cycles, the Achuar have created a model of representation of annual cycles in the rain forest which is much more precise than any other developed by biologists or weather scientists.
Since the Achuar did not have a written language before the arrival of missionaries, the use of myths has been extremely important in keeping the traditions alive. The trajectory of the constellations and its relationship with terrestrial phenomena is accurately displayed in this myth:
The seven orphans, called Musach, lived with their adoptive parents, and, as generally occur among the Achuar, they felt unhappy and decided to flee by secretly building a raft. The Musach chose a day when the floods had begun and when their parents had gone into the forest to then board their raft and drift downstream.
The adoptive father, Ankuaji, coming back from his hike, recognized the raft floating down the river and decided to catch them in his canoe in order to bring them back. The pursuit lasted many days but the orphans always managed to elude him. Finally they reached the place where the river meets the sky. The Musach found some bamboo, climbed rapidly, and reached the sky. Soon after, Ankuaji followed them.
Today the Musach are the Pleiades, their raft is the Orion constellation, while Ankuaji morning's eye still moves in the sky in the form of the Aldebaran star and still demonstrates his vain persecution of the seven orphans.
The Achuar base their calendar on the movement of the constellation Musach or Pleiades, which is visible to them between July and April.
Another star, called Ankuam, the star of Scorpion, appears in mid January, signaling the beginning of the rainy season.
The Achuar understand the universe as a hemisphere of sky and earth, which is surrounded by water. For the Achuar the upper river (yaki)/down river (tsumu) axis is much more important than the east/west axis.
Some of the most feared creatures such as anacondas, dolphins and ants, dwell in the underworld. In April the Pleiades disappears upriver and the floods begin.